Julianna Scott – The Holders

juliannascott-theholdersSeventeen year-old Becca has spent her whole life protecting her brother from the people who say the voices in his head are unnatural. When two strangers appear with apparent answers to Ryland’s “problem” – and details about a school in Ireland where Ryland will not only fit in, but prosper – Becca is up in arms.

She reluctantly agrees to join Ryland on his journey. But what they find at St. Brigid’s is a world beyond their imagination. Little by little they piece together information about their family’s heritage and unravel the legend of the Holder race… a legend that decrees Ryland is the one they’ve been waiting for. But all of them, and especially Becca, are in for a surprise that will change everything they thought they knew about themselves and all of their extraordinary kind.

While The Holders piqued my interest from the start due to the brother-sister relationship and hearing voices/mental illness mentioned in the cover copy, there were also some elements in the cover copy that made me wary. Two children off to boarding school, one of them a mysterious and prophesied saviour? How fantasy-clichéd can you get? So what I had absolutely not expected when starting The Holders was to be swept away by a main character with a voice all her own and a delicious romance. Because people? What a romance in this book!

For me, the strength of the book depended on its main character Becca. Told from her first-person point-of-view, the book drew me into Becca’s world and her reality, which consists of taking care not just of her little brother, Ryland, but in a way also of her mother, who needs Becca’s strength to keep from giving into agencies who want to institutionalise Ryland. I loved her fierce, protective nature, but what I loved even more was her cynical, not-quite-snarky outlook on life and people, not because it’s such a good outlook to have, on the contrary, but because it fit with Becca’s history of paternal abandonment and somewhat having to parent herself and Ryland. Much of Becca’s development in the book is focussed on her discovering her own desires in life and letting go of Ryland and her feeling of responsibility for him. I think any eldest child from a troubled home would recognise the desire to protect their younger siblings and the difficulties of letting go and stepping away, I certainly did.

Scott establishes these complicated family dynamics in a short amount of space, while still getting the story started quickly, without any long introductions. The plot takes off in the first few pages. I enjoyed this balance and Scott knows how to pace her story very well, with the story moving forward at a good pace, but not letting the characters or the readers be overwhelmed by the speed of the developments. Coupled with Scott’s smooth writing and Becca’s distinctive voice, The Holders made for compulsive reading and if I hadn’t had to work, I would have finished it in one sitting.

This was very much helped along by the feelings Becca develops for Alex, one of the Holders, who goes out and finds potential Holders and tries to bring them to St. Brigid’s. They have lovely chemistry and the flirting is lovely. What helps a lot in keeping this romance from turning into tired insta-love, is the fact that at first it’s presented as a simple crush and Becca is well aware of it, even mocking herself for being one of ‘those’ girls. It’s only later that it develops and at that point it is clear that there is more going on than just regular girl-meets-boy-and-falls-hopelessly-in-love, but that there might be something else involved. In addition, Alex is a wonderful guy – perhaps a little too perfect, but that could also be because Becca chooses to see him that way and she is our window into this world – which makes Becca’s crush on him even more plausible. I really enjoyed the romance element in The Holders and I look forward to seeing their relationship develop further.

Beyond Alex, Becca is surrounded by an interesting cast. Ryland is your typical little brother, annoying, but lovable and I completely bought the interaction between him and Becca. The adults at the school are all different and fun, but the one that stood out to me was Chloe. Her light-hearted, bubbly character and happy disposition provided a nice balance to Becca’s more mature, rather serious take on the world. The one person who looms over the entire narrative but get little actual page time is Becca and Ryland’s estranged father Jocelyn, who is headmaster at the school. I really liked where Scott took this storyline and how she portrayed Becca’s inner turmoil and her difficulty in coming to terms with both her feelings and her father.

The Holders‘ plot contains many familiar elements – boarding school, a prophesy, the fated love, paranormal superpowers – yet for all this, the narrative never exactly felt stale and in fact, Scott manages to take some of these tropes in an unexpected direction. Apart from the twist a little past halfway through the book, that spins all the adults for a loop and sets all the carefully laid plans awry, I particularly liked Scott’s take on the fated love. Her idea of Holders having an Anam, another person who holds a piece of their soul, but only rarely actually connecting to their Anam, was cool and reminiscent of the Valdemar lifebonds, featured by Mercedes Lackey. But where lifebonds are reciprocated, an Anam doesn’t have to love the Holder that bonds to them, though one gathers that it is the norm for this to occur. I found that a fascinating concept, as what would happen if your Anam didn’t love you or wasn’t willing to throw everything over and follow you wherever? What I did wonder about and which hopefully will become clear in later books was whether Holder-Anam bonds are always male-female, or whether same-sex bondings are possible as well.

In the end, The Holders took me quite by surprise. It was an interesting look at family relationships, at growing up, and at letting go, mixed which a huge dollop of paranormal powered adventure and sweetened with a wonderful romance. While for now the story has reached a point of equilibrium where everyone can catch their breath and prepare for the future, this story is far from over and I really look forward to continuing The Holders‘ tale.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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